Expert Advice on Hiring a New Executive Director

Melissa Merritt _1I wanted to finish off my exploration of hiring a new executive director or CEO by asking an expert. Melissa Merritt has done executive searches for twenty years including ten years in the nonprofit sector. She shares her insights about how a board can prepare for a search and what makes the process most successful.

This post is my final in a series about hiring a new CEO or Executive Director. The first post talks about a successful process. The second addresses how the outgoing ED should be involved. The third talks about the need for diversity on the search committee to avoid unexpected bias. The fourth talks about a search that went wrong due to bias and a flawed process.

Can you describe your firm, Waldron?

Waldron is a consulting firm that has a people-centered approach to organizational change and transition. We offer executive search, coaching, change management, and career transition consulting.

We have specifically focused on the nonprofit sector for our executive search work. We recognize the role our clients have in literally changing the world. That motivates the whole team to get the best possible leaders.

Can you give a little bit about your background?

I run Waldron’s Executive search practice. I am also a principal of the broader Waldron umbrella of practice areas. I have been in executive search for about 20 years. The first 10 years, I worked in the for-profit sector. Coming to Waldron brought me full circle because my first job out of college was with a nonprofit in West Africa. It is nice to work with the kinds of organizations I was in when I first started.

Our Executive Director left, what should we do before we contact you that will make the process more effective?

A couple of things. One is acknowledging that this is probably the most important decision you are going to make, so it requires everyone’s attention. Lay the ground work and have an honest discussion about needs. If, as a board, you have divergent views, get help to facilitate those conversations — so you all agree on what you need.

Another early step is to form a selection or nominating committee, that is, a smaller group that can focus on the search. A selection committee will make the final decision. A nominating committee will narrow choices and the board will make the final decision. Consider who is on this committee – will it include only board members or also other stakeholders?

Review your by-laws. Do you need the whole board to vote? Do you want to and are you allowed to entrust a few people with this decision? Look at those rules. If you feel that changes are required, make them before the search begins.

Develop a communication plan for the staff. It’s important to have trust between the staff and the board. Figure out who will be the conduit to ensure that staff is brought along in the process.

Do you think an organization should appoint an interim?

It depends on the situation. Pros: If you have a long-term leader who is synonymous with the organization, it is a good idea to separate the organization from that leader. All of the comparison, the fear, and the grief of transition can happen with the interim person. Then the incoming person can start fresh.

An interim is helpful when there is a transition you did not expect – the leader left abruptly – or you need some things changed. The interim plays a change-management role.

Cons: I think it can be detrimental if an interim goes on too long. The staff are in a holding pattern and it can hurt morale. Another caution is that an interim should be trained in organizational change management, so they do the job that they are meant to do.

What should the board consider in deciding to do a national search versus a local one?

With social media and the Internet, you are hard pressed to keep a search local. Ask why you want to stay local. Is there really a need for the new leader to be of this community?

While there is more risk bringing in someone who is not local, by broadening your horizons, you often get a better leader. And, local candidates may have their own issues that causes difficulties.

I recommend a broad search, recognizing the risk with candidates from out of town.  A great outcome is to do an expansive search and find people who are from the community, have left, and want to come back. They have a good sense of community but have gotten additional perspectives that can be helpful.

How do you do the background reference checks to minimize the risk for someone who is not local?

There is risk in any hire. It is not a science. At the end of the day, you are dealing with human behavior which is variable and unpredictable.  You cannot control risk, but you can try to mitigate it with references. We take nine references in a CEO search because a candidate has to dig deeper to get to that number. We get people who have reported to them, people who are their peers, people they have reported to. I think it is important to do back-door references as well. Talk to people who were not on the list.

Can you describe how you develop questions?

We use established, behavioral-based interviewing techniques. We look for specifics, so you know the person has actually done something. For example, you ask, “Do you have fundraising experience?” and they say yes. Next, you say, “Tell us about a gift that you brought in.” They reply, “I got this million-dollar gift from so and so donor.” Go deeper: What were the circumstances, what role did you play, who else was involved? When you probe, you may find that the major gift officer had been cultivating this donor for years and the candidate was brought in at the end. The conversation goes from “I did this whole thing” to “I only played one small role.”

Also, context matters. How long have candidates have been in a role? What have they accomplished? Look for demonstration from past behavior to predict the future behavior. Don’t ask a lot of hypothetical questions.

How long do most searches take?

Four to six months is average. If upfront work is required to scope out the role or get input from external stakeholders, it can take longer. It can also take longer if a final candidate does not accept your offer or if the finalist needs extended time to extricate themselves from their current role.

Can you describe the composition of the search committee – the number of people, who they represent. How should the board decide?

In terms of number, seven would be the maximum. Otherwise you spend a lot of time on process. I think an odd number is best. Having to break a tie is hard.

You need to decide if you want donors, staff, or other stakeholders to have a vote or to have a voice. If you just want voice, don’t put them on the committee. Find other ways to engage them. That said, you might want a staff member on the committee, if the staff have been through a lot of transition. When you have non-board members, it changes the dynamic.

If you have a close vote such as 4 to 3, do you recommend that everyone keep talking?

Yes, keep talking to get to the core reasons for disagreement. It could be no candidate is strong enough and you need to walk away. It could also be that people get fixated on something that is not core to the role or the experience. That’s why upfront work is so important.

Are there ways to make sure that people on the search committee such as donors or staff realize that they are representing that group and need to go back to that group?

I have run searches where people represent different constituencies. These committees are usually bigger. You need to be explicit that part of their role is to communicate back. Make time on the agenda at each meeting for action items. Have one person develop messages, have a small subset approve them, then have the people with different constituencies send them out. Without the specific steps, communication often does not happen.

What are ways to include the voice of stakeholders??

Stakeholders appreciate being included. First, decide whose voices you want to include. Early on, have the search firm talk to them about culture and mission. This helps create a more compelling narrative. Also, ask those closest to the organization for names of potential candidates. I have seen people be disgruntled because no one asked for their ideas. Make sure to update them but not too frequently. We typically have a midpoint where we provide an update to the search committee. That can be turned into an update for the rest of the board, staff, and other stakeholders.

You can also include stakeholders in some meetings with candidates. Give them a specific role with questions to ask and characteristics to look for. For example, have staff ask how candidates motivate their teams. If stakeholders are not given a specific and positive role, they will assume their role is to pick the person apart. It can become petty because they do not have enough information to make a substantive assessment.

What is most important to having a successful search?

You need momentum. Momentum ensures that both the people making the decisions and the candidates stay engaged.

You also need a good process. Start by agreeing on clear criteria of what you want and need. Otherwise, after meeting a candidate, someone will say “Oh, that’s what we need.” You end up with a moving target and it is hard to find the right person. Doing the upfront work keeps you on track, but it still leaves room to be surprised and delighted by candidates who bring something entirely different.

Most people don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes. We don’t just post a job and hope people will apply. We actively recruit. We reach out to stakeholders about potential candidates. We talk to thought leaders. This helps uncover people you would not necessarily come across.

Are there big red flags that should be watched out for?

Evaluate candidates on their own merits against the criteria that you set. Don’t immediately go to a relative measurement against other candidates. If you go too quickly to a relative comparison, you lose sight of what was important. You are now just saying “I like this person better than that person.” You may have two candidates who don’t meet the criteria at all.

I think the hardest part is acknowledging that you don’t have the right person and you need to keep looking. The decision should be grounded in the criteria that were set out at the beginning. We have to keep looking maybe one in five times.

Less frequently, the board will realize during the process that the criteria were not what they wanted. So, we have to completely redirect and look for different things. We don’t see that very often because we do try to do the upfront work.

Anything else you would like to share about searches and making them successful or making the transition successful?

We have found that when we can work with the search committee in partnership, we have a great experience. Some of the best searches are when we have had difficult conversations.

It is also important to focus on softer skills. A great leader can do wonders. They may not have every bit of experience you need. But they have vision, they have the ability to motivate and collaborate and compel people to get involved. That is worth a lot. Sometimes we get so caught up in the hard skills, we don’t pay enough attention to those people skills.

There is a red flag here too. Someone can be a great talker and you think they are visionary. Don’t be fooled. They need to show that they have done something, that they can produce results. It has to be backed up with evidence. A candidate does not need the exact skill set but must have a transferrable skill set. If they have been successful in a leadership role in a different context, it is likely they will have the ability to do that in the new context.

Another step that gets overlooked comes after a person is selected. Often boards think that their work is done. But the work is just beginning because you have to set this person up for success. That includes work with the staff, with the board, and with the individual.

Most new CEOs manage the staff part pretty well. But the role with the board needs to be well-defined. What is expected of the new leader and what decisions should be brought to the board? How is the board going to support the leader? What does the board expect the leader to accomplish in the first months? In the longer-term?


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